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20/07/2024
Mining News

Kyrgyzstan’s uranium mining resumption sparks environmental concerns amid economic promise

Environmental activists in Kyrgyzstan are raising alarms over the potential for a disaster following the parliament’s decision to lift a five-year ban on uranium mining. The Kyrgyz parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh, approved a government bill in early June that ends the prohibition on uranium and thorium mining. The legislation will come into force once President Sadyr Japarov signs it, which is expected to happen soon.

Economic justifications and government assurances

The Kyrgyz government argues that resuming uranium mining could significantly boost the economy, which has been struggling due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and sanctions on Russia. President Japarov has highlighted the potential for a $2 billion windfall from uranium production, stating, “We must continue to do any work that will provide even a small economic benefit to the state. Let’s at least in the next 10 years reach the level of neighbouring countries.”

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To alleviate environmental concerns, the government has pledged to employ new technologies and maintain strict environmental standards to safeguard operations. However, the reassurances have done little to quell the fears of environmentalists, who are concerned about the impact on Kyrgyzstan’s ecologically sensitive areas, including regions near Lake Issyk-Kul, a site of national and ecological importance.

Potential path to nuclear energy

The lifting of the mining ban is viewed by some as a precursor to developing a nuclear power plant (NPP) in Kyrgyzstan. Government officials are exploring the construction of a reactor with assistance from the Russian state-run entity, Rosatom. They have expressed interest in building a small modular reactor (SMR) capable of supplying power to about one million people. This move is seen as a response to the challenges posed by global warming and climate change, which have affected the country’s hydropower-dependent electricity generation.

Environmental and safety concerns

Environmentalists are deeply concerned about the prospect of a nuclear reactor in a country prone to earthquakes and with a poor track record of managing the environmental impacts of mining. The return to uranium mining is particularly troubling given the history of environmental contamination, which led to the 2019 moratorium. In May, activists warned the Ministry of Environment that resuming uranium mining could exacerbate existing environmental issues, questioning the true cost of the promised economic benefits.

Recent incidents have only heightened these fears. On June 1, a Rosatom truck involved in uranium tailings cleanup operations crashed into a river in the Dzhumgal district, Naryn Region. Although officials claimed the truck was empty, footage on social media suggested that black sludge had spilled into the river, contradicting official statements.

Risks of a catastrophic failure

A Reuters report from April highlighted the precarious state of reservoirs containing large volumes of uranium tailings, which are held back by unstable dams. These dams were damaged by landslides in 2017, and further landslides or earthquakes could potentially cause a catastrophic failure, spreading toxic waste across the river systems that irrigate the agricultural lands of the Ferghana Valley, affecting Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The report compared the potential fallout to a “Chernobyl-scale nuclear disaster.”

Conclusion

The decision to resume uranium mining in Kyrgyzstan underscores the tension between economic development and environmental stewardship. While the government emphasizes the potential financial benefits, the risks of environmental degradation and safety hazards loom large. The move has ignited a debate about the balance between economic necessity and the protection of Kyrgyzstan’s natural heritage, with environmental activists urging a more cautious approach to the country’s mining and energy future.

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